Veteran describes experiences gained patrolling Vietnam waterways

Navy veteran Mike Gavura served in the “Brown water navy” during the Vietnam War, and went on to retire from the Navy Reserves.

Navy veteran Mike Gavura served in the “Brown water navy” during the Vietnam War, and went on to retire from the Navy Reserves.

Service in Vietnam is often displayed by the gritty determination of troops fighting through the jungles, or sailors supporting major combat operations just off the coastlines.

But often overlooked is the service of Navy personnel who operated patrol boats of the inland waterways of a country at war — individuals referred to as the “brown water navy.”

And according to Mike Gavura, a Vietnam veteran and Navy retiree, it was an experience carrying lessons that have remained pertinent throughout the years.

At first, the forecast for Gavura’s career did not include military service; he enrolled in barber school in 1965, shortly after his graduation from high school. Employed as a barber for a brief period, he then went to work for McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis.

“That was back in the day of the draft,” Gavura said, “and I was working with a guy who was prior Navy. He convinced me to join the Navy because I were drafted into the Army, I’d end up being an infantryman in Vietnam.”

Enlisting in September 1967, he completed his initial training at Great Lakes, Ill., before traveling to Little Creek, Va., for a three-week counter-insurgency school (survival training).

“We learned to live off the land,” Gavura said, “and how to evade capture and escape in the case of capture.”

Later the same year, he was sent to Vietnam and assigned to a Riverine Patrol Group. Although initially assigned to the supply section, his actual duties had found him serving as a gunner and observer aboard river patrol boats.

As part of the group’s duties, they inspected Vietnamese vessels called san pans, and also coordinated with SEAL teams to arrange drop-off and pick-up locations in support of various covert missions.

During his time in-country, Gavura and his fellow sailors worked with joint task forces comprised of sailors from other nations, and trained them in the aspects of patrolling a coastline.

“As part of our duties, we were pretty much there to draw the fire and identify the location of enemies,” he said.

And despite serving as magnets for enemy fire, Gavura recalls one of the surreal moments that could emerge while in a combat zone.

“It was really interesting to watch the firefights taking place on shore at night,” Gavura said. “The lights of the tracer rounds going back and forth were truly something else.”

After more than a year in Vietnam, he returned to Little Creek, Va., in December 1968. The following month, he was assigned to the USS Traverse County — a large World War II-era landing ship.

The assignment was short-lived, however, as he left active duty service in December 1970, returning to St. Louis and McDonnell Douglas.

Gavura joined the Navy Reserve because “he missed the service and wanted the second paycheck.” He also notes he was given the opportunity to join the Seabees — part of the Navy’s construction battalions.

After retiring from McDonnell Douglas in 1991, he was mobilized in support of Desert Storm. He served in several capacities, including manpower officer and reserve project liaison officer at the 1st Naval Construction Division in Little Creek, Va., before retiring in 2007.

Completing his master’s degree, Gavura was hired by the state of Missouri in 1994 and is now a regional coordinator with the Missouri Division of Workforce Development in Jefferson City.

With almost three careers under his belt, Gavura said his military background helped establish the values necessary to remain successful in all of his employment endeavors.

“My time (in Vietnam), and my military service in general, helped me become detail oriented and operate under a higher authority,” he said.

“I also learned to work as part of a team and communicate with others to achieve a common goal…all of which one needs to be successful in virtually any career.”

Jeremy P. Amick is the public affairs officer for the Silver Star Families of America.

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